After the general election of 2010, and the Liberal Democrats entering a coalition with the Conservatives, I remember the cognitive dissonance that overwhelmed the party. It was the centre of sustained media attention, for the first time in its history, and with all the trappings of being a significant political force, with MPs and cabinet ministers. But its support amongst the public had died. Many insiders talked themselves into thinking that voters would return in time for the next election, using swathes of statistical evidence from past elections. But the party was as good as finished and was nearly wiped out in the 2015 election. Something of the same dissonance is now being experienced by the Conservative and Labour parties. Opinion polls put each of them at only about 20% of the vote, alongside the new Brexit Party (TBP) and the Liberal Democrats returning from the dead. The duopoly which is so much party of both parties’ raison d’être is facing its most serious challenge ever.
This collapse in support of the two parties that have anchored Britain’s political system for getting on for 100 years follows a global trend, especially here in Europe. It has happened in France and Italy, and is in the process of happening in Germany and Spain, not to mention several other countries. But it is a shock to the British political establishment. The duopoly had its best election in 40 years in 2017, when they Ukip followed the Lib Dems into collapse and they collectively took more than 80% of the vote. They even managed a significant recovery in Scotland, where both had been crushed by the SNP. You could almost hear the sigh of relief, not just from those parties’ luminaries, but amongst the tribe of civil servants, think tankers and journalists who yearned for the old familiar ways of the two-party system. Britain seemed more like the United States or Australia than its “Continental” neighbours.
But in America the political parties are democratic, with processes of open primaries to select candidates, allowing new ideas and people to take hold in alignment with wider popular attitudes. Instead of being replaced, the Republicans and Democrats are being transformed away from the traditional conservative and labour based models to being modern reactionary-nationalist and liberal-green parties – like the parties that are doing well in Europe. The Labour Party flirted with a more democratic and open party structure in 2015, which resulted in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But it has quickly reverted to the closed, cadre-based organisation as the hard left sought to consolidate its hold on the party machinery. The Tories abandoned their brief flirtation with open primaries long before. Party activists, and to a lesser extent paid-up memberships guard their privileges assiduously. That is the European way. The Lib Dems similarly rejected the injection of democracy earlier this year, amid much scoffing by activists.
The immediate problem for both parties is easy enough to see: Brexit. This issue divides parties formed on traditional lines, but unites nationalist and liberal forces on opposite sides, with greens joining the latter. Whether the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU really should divide liberals, greens and nationalists like this is an interesting question. There are some good liberal and green arguments for being outside the EU. But both loathe the reactionary nationalists with their illiberal and anti-environmentalist beliefs, and this doubtless suppresses any reservations; the conversion of the Greens to EU membership is much more recent than many realise.
For the Tories the problem has been that they have quite reasonably sought a version of Brexit that achieves its main objectives with the minimum of disruption. But this has ignited the anger of the rising tide of nationalists in their ranks, who see this as a sell-out, and have thwarted its attempts to get legislation through. TBP then arose from the ashes of Ukip as a much more disciplined and coherent organisation, having learnt much from Donald Trump’s techniques, and a major threat from the nationalist right. This has tapped the zeitgeist of the party’s bedrock support better than its own party leaders. The European elections showed that TBP posed an existential threat to the Tories, and so both candidates for the party’s leadership are trying to take their party into TBP’s ground, especially with support for a no-deal Brexit. That angers their liberal supporters who are deserting the party for the Lib Dems. By dealing with one threat they are opening up another. This is likely to get worse if the party either delivers a no-deal Brexit, or, indeed, if it fails to deliver Brexit at all.
Conservatives clearly hope to win their liberal supporters back by frightening them with the prospect of Labour coming to power. The problem with that is that Labour support also is in free fall and the party no long poses such a credible threat. A key ingredient of the success of the duopoly is stoking up fear of the other party. But as Times columnist David Aaronovich recently wrote of prospective Tory leader Boris Johnson:
If anything “vote Boris to stop Corbyn” has less resonance than, say, “vote Lib Dem to stop both of them”.David Aaronovich, The Times 3 July 2019
Labour have reached their sorry state because the leadership is understandably worried by the popularity of Brexit amongst their traditional white working class supporters, especially in many northern towns. They do not see Brexit as the defining issue of the times, but rather they say it is “austerity”, or the struggle of the less well-off against a system rigged against them. They hope to paint a messy Brexit as Tory incompetence and rally a backlash drawing in both supporters and opponents of Brexit. For a long time this looked like a clever strategy, but now it looks like a fatal weakness. As Britain approaches an autumn of political crisis, the party is without a coherent political message on the most important issue of the day. If the party had followed through on its democratic revolution of 2015, it would be leading the struggle to fight Brexit, and suffocating the Lib Dems and Greens in a journey towards being a modern liberal-green movement. To follow through on their strategy they needed the government to get its Brexit deal through parliament so that they could try to change the subject – but when it came to it they were too scared of a backlash from their anti-Brexit supporters.
Doubtless activists in both parties, like Lib Dems during the coalition, think that the ship will right itself by the time the next election comes. Labour supporters remember the surge in their party’s support in 2017. Tories think that Boris Johnson will puncture Nigel Farage’s TBP and generate a surge of support with his charismatic personality. A poll back in June suggested that just this might happen, albeit with a low poll share for the party.
But it is hard to see how events can unfold that will make these wishes come true. If the next election happens before this Autumn’s scheduled Brexit date, the Tories will be undermined by their support for a no-deal Brexit, and Labour will be undermined by their ambiguity on reversing Brexit. If the election happens afterwards, either after a no-deal or a failed Brexit, both parties risk being swept aside in the public backlash. And if a Brexit deal of some sort manages to be concluded, the process is likely to fatally fracture both parties – as a large number of Labour MPs will be required to get it over the line. The situation is becoming so unstable, however, that it is not impossible for one of the parties to still triumph – but this would require a quality of leadership that neither Boris Johnson (certain to be the Tory leader) nor Jeremy Corbyn possess. Strange times indeed.